I owe my travel to the Mayan ruins of Copan to Catherwood.
While the Guatemala-Honduras trip was being finalized, I came across The Lost Cities of Mayas in a local Half Price Books. The cover intrigued me so much that I bought it without any further thought, ignoring the oft quoted idiom that warns me to be careful in such circumstances. The subtext beneath the title “The life, art and discoveries of Frederick Catherwood” meant nothing to me at the time. I had no idea who Frederick Catherwood was. (A very fine decision it turned out to be indeed. The book sells at Amazon at 15-20x the price I bought it for.)
Later that night, I thought I would quickly browse the book in bed. Minutes turned into hours of intense reading and researching until the sun reddened the Redmond sky.
In the early part of the nineteenth century CE, Catherwood travelled to exotic places like Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Jerusalem, Jordan, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras. Some of these places even today are not easily accessible and travel friendly. He used his professional training in architecture in conjunction with his skills as a painter to capture the ethos and essence of a place with unerring accuracy. His work can be easily mistaken for photographs, so deft is his mastery with the brush. Unfortunately, on the back of a series of unfortunate events, only a small fraction of Catherwood’s work has survived to the present day.
His surviving work is all that is available to us to get to know Catherwood. For somebody so famous, he could not have been more mysterious, easily beating Greta Garbo to the gold in the Olympics for the reclusive. Born in an affluent English household, Catherwood rubbed shoulders with the elites in the Paris art circle – painters, sculptors, writers. He spent twelve years travelling with the American lawyer-politician John Lloyd Stephens, who wrote two volumes that went on to become best sellers in America in their times. Yet not a scrap of detail about Catherwood is known to exist. No physical description. No character analysis. No personal tidbit. No funny anecdotes. Even in death he managed to remain incognito. When the ill-fated ocean liner Catherwood boarded in London sunk off the coast of America, his name was not to be found in the passenger manifesto. Of course, his body was never found. Had it not been for his work, Catherwood might as well not have existed.
During my time amidst the ruins of Copan, I tried to stand where I thought Catherwood had and capture in my camera what I knew he had seen. Unfortunately, I did not have his drawings with me for reference; Blame it on our zest to travel light, poor internet connectivity in Honduras and plain simple bad planning on my part.
Fortunately, my memory served me well.
So here goes …
Catherwood’s penchant for capturing architectural details with surgical precision did not prevent him from using his imagination. For e.g., In this lithograph, Catherwood uses light and shadow powerfully; Introducing a bright light pointing down on the altar, washing out the lichen that covers the sculpture and a secondary light pointing upwards that gives the stela a grotesque, dramatic look.
In front of Stela A, Catherwood chooses a fantastic angle that shows Lord Eighteen Rabbit’s profile while capturing the minute details of glyphs on the side of the sculpture. I had to stand at 30 degrees to avoid letting into the frame a makeshift shed in the background, built to protect structures from the tropical elements. I realized later while processing my image for this article, that my point of view is lower than his. (He is at level with the elbow in the sculpture while I am a few degrees below, looking up to it.)
The sublime peace in his drawings make it is easy to forget the demanding conditions Catherwood made them in. Besides the tedium of hacking the foliage with a machete to free the structures, Catherwood was fighting unfamiliar climatic conditions, exhaustion, insect attacks, malaria, diarrhea and immense time pressure to complete his excavations in order to move to the next site. Under those circumstances, and irrespective, the quality of his work boggles the mind.
This one is my favorite. This is the back side of Stela F where some Mayan engravings can be found in Egyptian cartouche/ wreathe like shapes. A closer inspection shows that Catherwood’s drawing captures two glyphs (in the second cartouche from the top) that are missing today. David Stuart, a leading Mayanist, recently used Catherwood’s drawing to read those glyphs. At the time Catherwood was copying the engravings, not only did he have any idea of the Mayan style of writing, it was not even know if it was writing at all. What a fantastic testament to Catherwood’s accuracy is that!
Published in 1841, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, the book that surfaced Catherwood’s work to the American public has many more breathtaking drawings made at Yaxillan, Chichen Itza, Uxmal and Palenque in Mexico.
Needless to say, those destinations have been pinned on my travel map. This blog will be followed up in the next few years.